What serving the homeless taught me about finance?



Whenever I serve in a kitchen soup, it's a humbling experience to see the people - for the right, and wrong reasons ended up living on the street. It force me to ask the hard question, what if I ended up the other side?

Don’t get me wrong. We serve the homeless with care and pride. We always make sure the food is artistically presentable and still deliciously hot when served. Nevertheless, it’s a self-funding initiative, and there’s just so much quality we can afford to buy. Staple food like banana are donated, and sometimes the fruit comes overripe and smashed. Bread comes from the bakery discount rack where we cut into cubes to make it a fair distribution. The vegetable of choice (to save cost) is cabbage and frozen pea. It’s not the kind of life that most people dream to eat after retirement.

Talking to them or even just scooping the food for them taught me a lot of life lesson:  

It’s the little choices that will lead you there. The benefit of an instead success is overrated, winning a lottery is overrated. Most people don’t stay rich after winning a sum of money. A work bonus will not change the course of your life unless you save it and repeat it year after year. The result of tweaking small habits can be profound. Saving RM1 extra a day will give you RM28,800 extra when you retire (25 years, 8% compounding). Ask yourself, even if it’s just one dollar, how do I make this spend meaningful?

Pursue financial independence as soon as possible. Get the minimum insurance, the minimum shelter that you can live with and the minimum income you need as early as possible. It's best if you can own a house because it's hard to rent when you are old. Based on your risk appetite - choose leverage or pay as little loan interest as you can. In any case, buy assets first, then you can think about everything else.

Brands are overrated, and trend always fades. Part of this community service also hands out second-hand clothes periodically. The clothes are donated by the public, and we got to sort out the practical items for the people. Items in the donation bag speak loud about spending habit of a person. Clothes that came from sales rack (because it’s so ugly, no one in their sound mind would pay the retail price) is rarely worn. All the odd-looking accessories are just trash. Buy less, buy classics, buy quality, pay cheap.

Buy things that keep in value. The difference between accessories and jewellery is the value. I once bought a Lovisa discounted 925 silver earrings for RM14. The weight of the silver is 0.57gram, which is worth RM1.2 in the commodity market. Gold jewellery is about 40% higher than commodity price, costume jewellery is marked up 1000%. The real things you buy hold more value than the cheap stuff. Buy less stuff and if you must buy, buy value.

Food can be versatile and cheap. Beans and rice are one of the most affordable nutritional meal. Eat this once a week. Soup brings out the nutrient of whatever you boil (corns and tomato, organic bones, herbs or nightshades), replace a meal with soup pasta weekly. Water flushes away toxins in our body. Drink enough water each day, about half a cup every hour that you are awake.

Here's a way to drink enough water:
  • A cup of water with a squeeze of lemon/lime in the morning
  • Two cups of green tea in the noon
  • A cup of warm water before you sleep
  • And lots of water in the middle 
Finally, cherish your family. My heart broke when I see the homeless or old uncle who find it hard to sell bread on his bike. Either their family leave them on the street, or they have lost everyone they loved. Cherish your family while you have one, and your relationship with God if you know him. 

If you have a problem with excessive spending or ungrateful kids, try volunteer at a kitchen, it could change your life.

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